Sunday, September 28, 2008

In Memoriam: Pauline Kael's thoughts about Paul Newman

When she wasn’t panning Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (!?!), New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael appreciated Paul Newman’s rapport with his audience in her groundbreaking review of Hud (1963):

Somehow it all reminds one of the old apocryphal story conference—“It’s a modern western, see, with this hell-raising, pleasure-loving man who doesn’t respect any of the virtues, and at the end, we’ll fool them, he doesn’t get the girl and he doesn’t change!”

“But who’ll want to see that?

“Oh, that’s all fixed—we’ve got Paul Newman for the part.”

They could cast him as a mean man and know that the audience would never believe in his meanness. For there are certain actors who have such extraordinary audience rapport that the audience does not believe in their villainy except to relish it, as with Brando; and there are others, like Newman, who in addition to this rapport, project such a traditional heroic frankness and sweetness that the audience dotes on them, seeks to protect them from harm or pain. Casting Newman as a mean materialist is like writing a manifesto against the banking system while juggling your investments so you can break the bank.

Later, in 1977, when reviewing Slap Shot, Kael enthused at length about Newman’s “casual star-acting at its peak” (all quotes taken from For Keeps, Dutton, 1994):

What holds the picture together is the warmth supplied by Paul Newman. As Reggie, the player-coach of the Chiefs, a minor-league ice-hockey team, he gives the performance of his life—to date.

Newman is an actor-star in the way Bogart was. His range isn’t enormous; he can’t do classics, any more than Bogart could. But when a role is right for him, he’s peerless. Newman imparts a simplicity and a boyish eagerness to his characters. We like them but we don’t look up to them. When he’s rebellious, it’s animal energy and high spirits, or stubbornness. Newman is most comfortable in a role when it isn’t scaled heroically; even when he plays a bastard, he’s not a big bastard—only a callow selfish one, like Hud. He can play what he’s not—a dumb lout. But you don’t believe it when he plays someone perverse or vicious, and the older he gets and the better you know him, the less you believe it. He likableness is infectious; nobody should ever be asked not to like Paul Newman…

The essence of his performance as Reggie is that Reggie has never grown up; he’s beautiful because he is still a child. Reggie is scarred and bruised, and there are gold rims on his chipped teeth; you don’t see much of his eyes. But with Newman leaner, and his bone structure more prominent, this childlike quality is inner, and the warmth comes from deeper down. He makes boyishness seem magically attractive…

But this is the kind of breakthrough that doesn’t often happen with movie stars. And when a star grows as an actor, there’s an extra pleasure in it for us. We know Newman so well in his star roles—he is so much a part of us—that we experience his developments as if it were our triumph. Newman proves that stardom isn’t necessarily corrupting, and we need that proof as often as possible.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Cinderellas in their 40s in the Big Apple: Sex and the City: The Movie Version: a review/interview

Back in June 2008, when this blog was just getting started, I was dissatisfied with my review of Sex in the City: The Movie Version because I felt that I just didn’t get the film’s fundamental appeal to women. So I asked a long-standing devotee of the television show if she would mind being interviewed about the movie. She graciously accepted, and this interview took place in a Tarantino-esque coffee shop near Surfside Beach, South Carolina.

Him: The Sex and the City HBO show favored the single woman’s perspective, giving a hip feminist twist to the search for romance in the city. The show went on for six seasons, with much of it tracking the many ups and downs of Carrie and Big’s relationship (i.e. Sarah Jessica Parker and Chris Noth) As Big, Noth is a sort of aristocratic, rich, handsome, but also unreliable hunk, a kind of 21st century Heathcliff. Meanwhile, the three friends, the nympho blonde Samantha, the ultra-preppy brunette Charlotte, and the more angst-ridden lawyer redhead Miranda had numerous romances or just hook-ups in turn. No matter what sexual deviancy served as a theme for each show (urination, threesomes, talking dirty), the ladies could always regroup, drink Cosmopolitans, and restore themselves with their camaraderie. Men were often deplored and/or lusted over, but ultimately they proved secondary to the four-way friendship. What did you like about the film?

Her: The movie has a “slumber party” effect. Most girls when they are in middle school get together with their best girlfriends and stay up all night and talk about boys and try on clothes and makeup and giggle and cut up and eat without the worry of a boy looking on. And that’s the world of Sex and the City, regardless of the guys on the side. Every woman can identify with that. It’s just fun. There’s the thing about the guy, but the guy’s are never invited into that world, other than how they enter into the discussion.

Him: As the six seasons went on, the agenda of the show changed from the more freewheeling singles life to drearier concerns about aging, careers, having children, and getting married. Carrie broke up with Big, visited Paris with Alexander, a character played by Baryshnikov, and then ultimately went back to Big one last time.

The film picks up the four friends four years later. Carrie is now living with Big. Miranda has married the bartender Steve, and has a boy, Brady. Samantha found both hot sex and commitment with an actor, Smith Gerrold, out in Hollywood (she’s his press agent). Charlotte married Harry, her divorce lawyer, and adopted a Chinese girl Lily after they proved “reproductively challenged.”

All of this massive backstory gets covered quickly in the opening credits, and soon Carrie and Big decide to get married after they find a beautiful Penthouse apartment in Manhattan. “This is where they keep the light,” exhudes Carrie as they walk through its fairy tale spacious interior. Big says that he will buy it, and when Carrie thinks of selling her little brownstone apartment, the female friends become concerned about Carrie becoming financially dependent on Big. She will have “no legal rights” if Big chooses to kick her out later. When Carrie brings up these concerns with Big, he casually mentions getting married, so they decide-- after ten years of break-ups and reconciliations-- to do just that.

The film indulges itself in a Cinderella fantasy of Vivienne Westwood wedding dresses and a Vogue photoshoot for Carrie, but when Big gets cold feet and does not show for the wedding, the scene suddenly becomes oddly tragic. Carrie howls “Get me out of here,” and retires to lick her wounds in Mexico with her friends. As the tone darkens, and Steve confesses to having an affair to his wife Miranda, I noticed how the women tend to overreact to male unreliability. In situations where others might forgive and forget, these cut off all communication with the guy, refuse to read their e-mails, and generally freeze the man out for months.

Her: Carrie and Miranda have always been very single-minded about what they want and very likely to toss away relationships when things aren’t going well. Both of them have tossed out the loves of their lives several times for various reasons. In general, they represent a kind of woman who expects quid pro quo in her relations with men, and if they seem to be getting the short stick, they will vamoose. For some reason, this may seem unrealistic given their economic straits, but for Sex in the City women, they can always depend on themselves. They are capable of taking care of themselves. That independence often makes them more me-centered than many women can allow themselves to be.

Him: For instance, Miranda hasn’t had sex with Steve for over six months when he fools around on her, yet she views his infidelity as a betrayal of their trust and will have nothing to do with him. So, even as one enjoys the show as an opportunity to meet up with old friend characters, they come across as amazingly inflexible, which one suspects helps maintain the intensity of the storyline.

Her: They put up resistance to make a point. We, the audience, know that they will go back to their men because we know them better than they know themselves. I knew that Carrie often goes back to Big because she loves him too much.

Him: Oddly, the jokes of the film are cruder than usual. Samantha stumbles across a small female puppy for sale, and when she notices the puppy humping a toy, she knows the dog follows her own heart, so she buys it. This humping dog gag shows up multiple times as a counterpoint to the later emotional scenes, but Adam Sandler has used the same joke repeatedly back in Click. Other jokes include an attack of diarrhea that causes Charlotte to defecate in her pants, and Miranda’s unsightly pubic hair growth that shows around her bathing suit. I understand that humor often involves the embarrassing limitations of the body, but it still seems strange that the writer/director Michael Patrick King reached for such crass gags more appropriate for teenage guys for his showpiece film.

Her: I was really bothered by the pubic hair thing because the typical Sex in the City riff on body imperfection is to talk about it but not show it. For example, they’ve had many jokes about pubic hair (the famous Brazilian wax dialogues), so I can’t understand why King included that sight gag.

Him: You mentioned slumber parties. I thought that ultimately, Sex and the City resembles a class reunion. One enjoys seeing old characters return, but their once youthful impetuosity and lustful joy in life can appear more lecherous now that they are in their forties. For instance, Samantha reaches her fiftieth birthday lewdly spying on a young man sleeping with several women next door. It struck me that the women seem more celibate, more bound by the duties of middle age to be worthy of the title Sex and the City. The men, too, seem diminished by being married. Steve makes for an agreeable little figure, cracking a lame joke when needed. As a kind of fantasy figure, only Big retains some edge, and that’s only because he’s allowed to act badly and leave the film or the show for long periods of time.

Her: There’s no age limit for female camaraderie or lustfulness. The slumber party effect is ageless. As a matter of fact, the older you get the more you need it. The friends are all in relationships. Once you are in a relationship, you don’t talk about the sex as much because it’s a form of respect paid to your partner. The men may feel diminished to you, but they are always secondary in the show anyway.

Him: Even though the film does a nice job emphasizing fashion and real estate, the city hardly figures in the narrative at all.

Her: I wished that we had seen more of New York. I wish that they had dwelled more in a Woody Allen way on the city.

Him: Jennifer Hudson agreeably shows up as Carrie’s new assistant, but she comes to obviously represent the power of love to restore everything, and there’s no escaping the sense that she conveys the more idealistic youthful perspective that the women once had. Now, even with the film’s unlikely happy ending, their attempts at bonhomie carry a bittersweet hint of denial as their lives change.

Her: They see Jennifer Hudson as the next phase. There are always new people coming to the city to do the same thing, to look for “love and labels.” There’s a sense of renewal. They look back on their experience, and they are proud of where they come from. I don’t think that they are concerned about aging at all.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Notable Film Links--September 26, 2008

---In honor of his memory, I've been rereading David Foster Wallace's essay from A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (1998) entitled "David Lynch Keeps His Head," which concerns Lost Highway. Wallace admitted that he was a "fanatical Lynch fan from way back," but I was surprised by his thoughts about Lynch's strong influence on Quentin Tarantino. You can read it in the papers section of The City Of Absurdity. As Wallace writes:

"The peculiar narrative tone of Tarantino's films – the thing that makes them seem at once strident and obscure, not-quite-clear in a haunting way – is Lynch's; Lynch invented this tone. It seems to me fair to say that the commercial Hollywood phenomenon that is Mr. Quentin Tarantino would not exist without David Lynch as a touchstone, a set of allusive codes and contexts in the viewer's midbrain."

--Writing for The New York Times, Jonathan Lethem weighs in on the "cognitively dissonant milkshake of rage, fear and, finally, absolving confusion" of The Dark Knight. Lethem claims that "In its narrative gaps, its false depths leading nowhere in particular, its bogus grief over stakeless destruction and faked death, The Dark Knight echoes a civil discourse strained to helplessness by panic, overreaction and cultivated grievance."

--Writing for Film School Rejects, Neil Miller suggests "The 10 Remaining Must See Movies of 2008."

--Both Out of the Past and Culturazzi discuss Metropolis (1927) and its influence on science fiction films.

--Writing for his 100-Page Super Spectacular, Dr. K finds that Michael Caine's Play Dirty (1968) is one of his favorite "nihilistic, morally ambiguous war movies."

--Confused about the banking situation in America today? Catherine Grant of Film Studies for Free explains how one can listen to BBC Radio 4 and watch the bank run scene of It's a Wonderful Life for guidance.

--Lastly, girish shares the first film book to "grab" him "by the lapels": James Monaco's The New Wave: Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette (1976).

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Boy men: notes on Step Brothers

“It would be hypocritical of me to dismiss the appeal of this fantasy and silly to deny that a lot of these movies manage to be both very funny and disarmingly insightful about the male psyche. But I suspect I’m not alone in growing weary of the relentless contemplation of that psyche in its infantile state, and of the endless celebration of arrested development as a social entitlement.”—from “Here Comes Everybody, Again” by A. O. Scott

“Sometimes I think I am living in a nightmare. All about me, standards are collapsing, manners are evaporating, people show no respect for themselves.”—a passage from Roger Ebert’s review of Step Brothers

Considering that Step Brothers is R-rated, why would younger adult guys pay money to see two men in their forties acting like they are 13?

Step Brothers at least confronts the issue of immature modern man head on. One guy in his forties (Will Ferrell as Brennan Huff) lives with his mother (Mary Steenburgen). Another fellow in his forties (John C. Reilly as Dale Doback) lives with his dad (Richard Jenkins), who is a doctor. When the mom and dad marry, the two terminally immature guys find themselves thrown together Brady Bunch style under the same roof and even in the same room. They fight, curse, play territorial games with Dale’s drum set, and eventually become good friends once they realize how much they have in common.

I liked the beginning of the movie, in part because the parents seem semi-human. I was expecting them to be treated as lampoon figures in a teenage-oriented world, but given the nature of the step brothers, their parents end up looking semi-sympathetic. Also, the initial sparring between Dale and Brennan has some humorous moments. Spoiled and lazy in suburbia, Dale plays Guitar Hero all day as Brennan gets idly aroused by an aerobicizing woman on television. Even though Brennan was just laid off from the local PetSmart, his mother tries to find some way to celebrate his accomplishments as a “gifted singer.” Also, the film includes an inspired character named Derek, Brennan’s obnoxiously successful younger brother (Adam Scott), who has a family and pulls in over 500k a year as a businessman. Acting much like Tom Cruise, Derek is arrogant, over-bearing, and good at brownnosing Dale’s dad, so finally Dale punches him out of the tree house.

After Derek’s arrival, however, the film has nowhere to go, mostly because the There’s Something About Mary dog-poop-and-genitalia extremity of the humor rules out much in the way of character development. Brennan attempts to bury Dale alive one evening, but the nullity of that gothic gesture just emphasizes the film’s increasing vapidity. Since the makers of Step Brothers assume that maturity and drudging employment will eradicate whatever made the leads entertaining to start with, their already thin characters effectively freeze. All one gets are increasingly loud scenes that do little to mask the lack of a coherent third act.

Brennan and Dale do try to seek help from psychiatrists. Since they remain stuck in terminal regression, however, there’s not much hope for them. In dramatic contrast to Adam Sandler, Brennan and Dale have their self-aware moments where they talk of living in a “fantasyland” where they should try to accept some “responsibility.” But since growing up is inevitably dull, they will always return to the tree house, the flatulent jokes, the crossbows, and the Chewbacca masks.

After seeing Mamma Mia!, which is its own age issues, one can safely assume that some day we will see a musical set in a sun-lit island rest home where frisky baby boomers dance and sing in their 80s. Also, Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly can gurgle, burp, and demand their bottle in their upcoming Step Brothers 2: Tales from the Crib.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Notes on The Women

Yes, The Women, a remake of George Cukor’s classic 1939 version, views like a bizarre variation on the Sex and the City movie (SATC is bizarre enough already). Meg Ryan (Mary Haines) comes off as a blonde-poodle-hair-do-and-puffy-lips reply to Carrie Bradshaw. Both of them lose their men and then spend much of the film mourning the loss until their various women friends help them triumph in the end. Given that The Women does not include one man ever (sisters are doing it for themselves!), Mary’s husband’s determines much of the plot thanks to his infidelity with a Saks Fifth Avenue spritzer girl (Eva Mendez). So even though guys are absent, the women often react to the unseen men anyway, which makes the film seem dated. Further observations:

1) What does The Women suppose that women like in their movies? A lesbian bar scene, Saks Fifth Avenue, confrontations in the dressing room of a lingerie shop, fashion shows, gossip, and the ever-popular birthing scene (“My water broke!”)—the female equivalent to a shoot-out.

2) As Mary’s mother Catherine, Candice Bergen looks put-together, weathering her age better than just about anyone else. Director Diane English wrote episodes for Bergen’s Murphy Brown, but otherwise she has never directed a feature-length film before. Now she decides to compete with George Cukor?

3) Most unfortunate cameo—Carrie Fisher. She has one scene as an evil reporter with Annette Bening in a gym. Both women clumsily operate elliptical machines. Fisher looks creepily like Robert Blake--short, pasty, and ill-at-ease.

4) Funniest scene—Mary Haines expresses her despair over losing her husband by dipping a stick of butter into dry cocoa and sugar and then eating it.

5) Annette Bening acquits herself reasonably well as the un-Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep’s role in The Devil Wears Prada). While Streep rules her film with understated power, Bening plays a much more nervous editor of a ladies magazine living in fear of getting sacked. As one of the less Botoxed actresses, she also has one of the better opening lines: “This is my face. Deal with it.”

6) Signs of growth and change—Mary gets her poodle do straightened!

7) While the 1939 classic original began with head shots of various animals (a cat, a deer, lamb, wolf, etc.) that dissolve into the women’s faces to give the viewer an instant idea of each character, the 2008 version begins with a bunch of ladies’ feet walking around New York, I guess to remind the viewer of Hitchcock’s intro to Strangers on a Train.

8) As LA-degenerate agent Leah Miller, Bette Midler somehow looks dignified in dyed blond hair and a grunge t-shirt. As other women work hard to look youthful and beautiful, Bette goes in the opposite direction and upstages them all. She also has the best advice for the woebegone Mary—“Don’t give a shit about anybody.” Too bad Diane English did not adopt more of that iconoclastic attitude while making The Women.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Notable film links--September 19, 2008

Sight and Sound
asked several major critics to choose what work of criticism had the largest influence on them, and their answers are intriguing. David Thomson's work comes up often, yet I was surprised that only one critic, Armond White, brought up Pauline Kael.

Speaking of David Thomson, he wrote a thoughtful article for The Guardian about major disastrous film productions that had a lasting effect on the industry. I particularly liked his discussion of The Night of the Hunter as the one movie in which the audience "didn't know best":

"No, of course it doesn't look or feel like an American film of 1955, but at that moment it was essential that some movies begin to do things differently. The Night of the Hunter is not just a great film, it is among the great expressions of America's sense of childhood giving way to warped adulthood. Everything that was "wrong" about it was right - because an artist had perceived the work as a whole and brought it home. It was the public that was wrong, and nothing is more alarming."

Film In Focus continues to spotlight excellent blogs and luminaries of the history of cinema. Peter Cowie interviewed Jeanne Moreau about what is was like to act during birth of New Wave. As she said:

"What came with the New Wave was that powerful energy, that aggressive antagonism and the lack of money. The crew was very reduced. Hierarchy as such didn't exist. Prior to that, you couldn't imagine someone playing the main part, the star, without a car, a driver, a personal assistant, dresser, make-up, hairdresser... When I made Ascenseur, I did my make-up, my own hair, the costumes were my clothes, there was no driver, and nobody was following me around.

I used to do the make-up in a café at a quiet table out of sight, usually near the toilets, surrounded with the smell of urine and detergent! An assistant would close his eyes, holding a big coat while I undressed and changed."

I'm very impressed with the way the film blogosphere generates retrospectives about the careers of major directors, so how about more concerning Woody Allen and Stanley Kubrick? In the meantime, one can still read Movieman 0283's thoughts on Love and Death. Kubrick fans can enjoy Sarcastig's take on The Killing in As Cool as a Fruitstand and T. S.'s celebration of Dr. Strangelove in Screen Savour.

Speaking of directors, the September 22 issue of The New Yorker includes John Colapinto's excellent profile about Spike Lee entitled "Outside Man." I can't link to that because of the retro way the magazine still seems to want us to look at the article in print.

Concerned about the financial meltdown on Wall Street? Writing for SpoutBlog, Kevin Buist gets us ready for the worst with his "Preparing for Global Financial Apocalypse: Seven Lessons from the Movies."

I like Dennis Cozallio's list of the 12 movies he still needs to see in Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. Isn't White Heat required viewing for cinephiles?

Lastly, after leaving the staff of Cinematical, Kim Voyner passionately explained in Film Essent "why it matters" that we should all continue to write intelligently about movies given market pressures to dumb down internet content:

"It’s a matter of standing up and saying, you know what? It does matter if someone writes about independent film. It does matter if a little film from Bosnia or Ethiopia has a chance to have its voice be heard, even if a review of that film doesn’t get millions, or even thousands of hits. It does matter if film critics support filmmakers like Ramin Bahrani, Claire Denis, Walter Salles, Jason Kohn, Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, AJ Schnack and countless others out there – people who are passionate about the value of film as an art form, who are fighting to still get intelligent films made. It matters. . . . Music and film, like all art, reflect and refract our culture, and it is important both that artists keep striving to make the good stuff, and that writers keep writing about it and getting the word out to anyone who will listen."

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Burn After Reading's portrait of middle-aged despair

Instead of being amused, I was filled with alarm after viewing Burn After Reading because of the fun-house mirror the Coen brothers hold up to its predominantly white middle-aged audience. Twice in the film, the characters watch a fake film called Coming up Daisies starring Dermot Mulrony and Claire Danes. When the characters laugh at the same bad joke, I realized that those scenes grimly satirized me and everyone in the theater. Then I thought of the creepily quiet, studied way the Coen brothers accepted their Oscars earlier in the year for Best Director and Best Picture in relation to No Country for Old Men. What do they think of us, their audience? What kind of contempt fills their vision of grasping, insufficiently famous Americans? It is a source of great and terrible wonder.

How do the middle-aged appear in this film? Let me count the ways:

1. Body obsessed. Frances McDormand’s character, Linda Litzke’s chief motivation for her noir skullduggery is the hope of funding extensive plastic surgeries for her face, legs, butt, and belly. She also works at Hardbodies Fitness Center. One can only imagine why McDormand’s husband, Joel Coen, puts her into such sad demeaning roles. Meanwhile, Harry (George Clooney) can only think of running five miles after loveless sex with his various paramours.

2. Only capable of drinking bottled water. Chad (Brad Pitt) blanches at the thought of drinking “Maryland swamp water” in the midst of one scene when he should concentrate on the act of blackmailing.

3. Mechanical. Chad spends much of the film flailing about in a frenzy of mechanized motion, but then everyone seems prey to joyless repetitive action.

4. Stuck in a loveless, adulterous marriage. As Katie (Tilda Swinton) seeks exit from her crappy marriage with Osbourne (John Malkovich), Harry seeks the same from his marriage to children’s book writer Sandy (Elizabeth Marvel). Perhaps unsurprisingly, Katie and Harry sleep with each other.

5. Desperately single. Using a dating service, Linda sleeps with various married men after meeting them in a park, eating dinner out, and going to the same inane movie (Coming Up Daisies). Bleakly, after sad mechanical sex, and after the man passes out, she searches through their wallets to learn of their adultery. Ironically, Ted, the manager of Hardbodies Fitness Center, (Richard Jenkins) pines after Linda to no avail.

6. Sex-obsessed and paranoid. George Clooney effectively lampoons his own seductive charm by grinning his way through several loveless romances and building a dildo-enhanced mechanical chair—a concise symbol of his character Harry’s empty life. Harry also becomes increasingly paranoid that some combination of the alphabet soup (CIA, FBI, etc.) is after him.

7. Desperately angry. Osbourne Cox (Malkovich) rants against CIA officials, his wife, his blackmailers, and ultimately the entire world of morons until he attacks his old Brownstone with a hatchet. Meanwhile, when her plans do not bear fruit, Linda reacts like a cornered rat. She proves willing to sell out anyone and anything, even her country, for her plastic surgery.

In dramatic contrast to, say, The Great Lebowski, no one proves the tiniest bit sympathetic in this film, except for one oddly agreeable CIA official played by Juno’s dad J. K. Simmons. Everyone else is grasping, superficial, and soullessly loathsome. One could call Burn After Reading a comedy, but I found it too grim a portrait of middle-aged drift to do anything but go home filled with nameless dread.

David Foster Wallace: In Memoriam

David Foster Wallace was an extraordinarily talented writer. Published in 1996, Wallace's Infinite Jest is still one of the best novels written in recent years. Here's a couple quotes from his 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address:

"Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education -- least in my own case -- is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.

As I'm sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. . . .

The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing."

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Gas price hikes, peak oil, and the two relevant documentaries

Note: this post concerns two films by Gregory Greene, now available on DVD:

The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream (2004)

Escape from Suburbia: Beyond the American Dream (2007)

“The American way of life is non negotiable.”—Dick Cheney

“We're literally stuck up a cul-de-sac in a cement SUV without a fill-up.”—Jim Kunstler

Since I’m much more used to writing snarky reviews about movies, I’ve been debating whether or not to discuss Gregory Greene’s two peak oil documentaries for awhile, but the arrival of Hurricane Ike in Texas just had dramatic effects on the gas supply and price here in South Carolina. Earlier today, I went out to fill up my Hyundai and found Young’s gas station down the street with little yellow bags on the pumps: they were sold out. No gas. I drove further into town, and found the price of gas had increased dramatically at other stations. The Shell sign indicated $4.49 for regular, while another station down the road said $4.79. Apparently, drivers made a run on the pumps yesterday, maxing out stations throughout the Carolinas. What’s going on?

Web definition of peak oil: “The point at which half of global oil reserves have been used, at which point scarcity will gradually increase and prices rise....” Some say this peak won’t happen for another 30 years. Others say it has already happened, but we won’t know until afterwards.

In a time of climate change, overpopulation, war, and crisis fatigue, one may find it difficult to get concerned about peak oil, but it’s the major issue that fails to get enough media attention, in part because it is bad for business. Even now, I just looked through a Barnes and Noble and could not find one book on the topic. Most of the advertisements one sees on TV assume the opposite line of thinking—buy an SUV! Recently, as gas prices have risen, many SUV and truck owners have been trying to trade in their vehicles for smaller, more gas-efficient cars, but here in the south I still see people grumpily filling up their monster vehicles. One of my co-workers spends $60 on her SUV every two days to fund her one hour commute to work.

One can boil down the peak oil dilemma to a set of questions:

1. What would you do if gas suddenly costs 10$ a gallon? $20? $30? $40 a gallon within the next few years?

2. What would you do if the price of food rose at the same pace?

3. Would you move closer to work? What would you do if you lost your job?

4. How would you manage if your house had no electricity for long periods of time?

5. Would you live in denial? Would you blame the oil companies? Would you assume that alternative fuels such as wind and hydrogen would take care of things?

Humorously, Greene’s first and harder-hitting documentary The End of Suburbia was released in 2004, so in that film the pundits talk about gas rising to just above $2. His second, Escape from Suburbia takes a slightly more upbeat tone as it considers possible solutions. The latter film features various peak oil activists trying out farm life or community gardens, but both films make clear that our current way of life is unsustainable.

Overall, Greene’s documentaries are decent, but not especially innovative. They include ironic 1950s footage of happy people living in brand new suburbs, or tooling around on the highways of the future. The movies tend to shy away from the darker possibilities of what will happen to our way of life when we go round the bell curve of oil and find ourselves on the downward slope, when no one can afford gas or oil anymore. Richard Heinberg, a frequent speaker in the documentaries, predicts in his book The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies that the upcoming century will include “impending famine, disease, economic collapse, despotism, and resource wars.”

Whether or not that happens depends on whether we change our mindset about cheap oil. Someone in Escape from Suburbia points out that “Comfort erodes the brain,” and people are just too distracted and complacent to focus on the issue. The films make clear that we should stop imagining that economic growth is our God-given right, and we need to get over the blind assumption that low-price gas is “non negotiable,” because the reality of supply and demand cares little for any American sense of entitlement. Something to consider the next time you arrive at a gas station to find those yellow bags covering the pumps.

For more information, check out Peak Oil News.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Notable film and media links--September 12, 2008

In her New Yorker's incisive take on Hitchcock's masterpiece, Campaspe of Self-Styled Siren claims "The real question of Rear Window isn't about the morality of looking, it's about the ethics of intervention." In a city where any kind of privacy is difficult to maintain, Hitchcock explores the price you pay for acting on what you should not have seen.

The Cineaste Critical Symposium discussing "Film Criticism in the Age of the Internet" has been much linked to already, but as a relatively new blogger, I found the session invaluable both in terms of learning about the pros and cons of blogging about film, but also in the way the symposium pointed out some of the best critics on the web. I didn't know, for instance, the level of critical respect girish earns and enjoys. For a skillful summary of the Symposium, check out P. L. Kerpius' post on Scarlett Cinema.

Somewhat along the same lines, Vin Crosbie of digital deliverance extensively analyzes why so many people have shifted to on-line websites for their information, and why newspapers have had such a hard time adapting to changing media technologies.

The House Next Door has posted a fascinating reassessment of Brian De Palma's career by Michael K. Crowley, who points out, "De Palma remains one of the most prolific, poorly understood and controversial directors in the history of cinema." I can remember Pauline Kael's enthusiastic response to Dressed to Kill way back in 1980, so it's nice to see De Palma's oeuvre reconsidered.

Writing for Ferdy on Films, etc., Roderick Heath continues his engaging Famous Firsts series with his discussion of George Lucas' first feature-length THX 1138. As he points out,
"Despite the scifi trappings, THX 1138 has an interior, alienated texture pitched to echo a counterculture atmosphere; it feels like an illustration of a Bob Dylan lyric, like “Visions of Johanna,” or a Borgesian labyrinth tale, with its haiku-spare vignettes and images, and echoes of vast cultural arguments going around in circles."

Writing for Film Studies For Free, Catherine Grant has found some interesting Godard-related links, from YouTube clips to podcasts of the 2001 For Ever Godard conference in the Tate Modern museum in London.

Writing for The Dancing Image, Movieman0283 struggles valiantly with the many mysteries of David Lynch's Inland Empire.

Lastly, Matthew Dessem's blog makes me jealous. Who wouldn't want to write about every movie in one of the few signs of God in this dark age--The Criterion Collection? I especially enjoyed his essay concerning Frederico Fellini's under-appreciated Nights of Cabiria (1957).

Thursday, September 11, 2008

As the World Trade Center turns: Oliver Stone’s take on 9/11

Oliver Stone made some ambitious films in the past that were often marred by their manipulative overkill. He started his career by writing Midnight Express, a lurid depiction of an American trapped in a Turkish prison that was so extreme, it was inflammatory and paranoid, yellow journalism masquerading as entertainment. While later films such as JFK and The Doors had a fun, freewheeling sixties aspect, Stone’s Natural Born Killers again went too far, this time in its depiction of the joys of killing people. While he’s more willing to take risks than most directors, Stone has difficulties maintaining some artistic restraint. By the time he directed the epic flop Alexander, I figured that Stone’s career was largely over. When he made World Trade Center (2006), Stone tied himself to the largely true-life story of two port authority policemen trapped for 24 hours in the rubble of the World Trade Center. He seems so chastened by the material, the film comes off as annoyingly grandiose therapeutic melodrama.

Of course, any film that deals with the events of Sept. 11th has a kind of built-in blackmailing device for critics. Can one dare to say anything against a stirring, emotional tale of America’s sacrifice, especially one that dwells on the heroism of the working class men, the policemen and the firefighters who were involved? Given the delicacy of the subject matter, the sense that any treatment of those events touch on an open wound on the national psyche, a filmmaker need only depict the twin towers standing innocuously on the city’s skyline to affect the viewer.

The beginning of the film does just that, showing the unusually warm dawn of September 11th as New York City begins to awake, and no one knows what’s about to hit. And for awhile, Stone sticks to the events in chronological order, immersing us in the lives of the port authority policemen Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) and Sergeant John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) as they get the call to go help with the evacuation of one of the World Trade towers. We quickly learn that both are devoted family men. McLoughlin looks in on his four children before driving his hour and a half commute to work. Jimeno jokes around with his fellow officers in the locker room as they get in uniform. By sticking strictly to their often confused point of view, Stone achieves some of the ironic effects of Greek tragedy. Jimenez does not understand the significance of the shadow of the low flying jet washing over him. At first, the police think that a private plane accidentally flew into the first tower, as they watch the news, and McLoughlin is all business as he makes sure they have enough oxygen tanks before heading up.

At that point, while they are walking around the concourse, the building abruptly falls on top of them, and in many ways the narrative stops dead. In comparison to the relentless pacing of Flight 93, World Trade Center lingers around for twenty four hours as both men remain trapped under concrete and rubble, talking to each other, as Stone predictably cuts back to their wives and family freaking out in their suburban homes. While Flight 93 moved quickly toward the jet passengers’ resolution to take on the hijackers, the new film lollygags and soul-searches until only Michael Pena’s occasional jokes about imitating Starsky and Hutch as a kid by arresting his sister barely alleviates what otherwise turns into a drearily conventional disaster drama. While both men suffer from thirst, Pena dreams of Jesus appearing with a water bottle, and his goofball remarks about it to the mournful Nicolas Cage provided some of the few sparks of whimsy in the film. Even the darkest stories need some humor, some subversive playfulness to show that side of the human spirit, but Stone keeps cutting back to the concerned wives either as they wait or in flashbacks as virtuous McLoughlin remembers showing his son how to saw a block of wood.

The movie has its powerful moments, notably the image of the firefighters from as far away as Wisconsin bonding together to pull victims from the smoking rubble, but as a whole, the film lays it on too thick, continually telegraphing emotions to the audience. As the portentous piano soundtrack plays the same little tune, the TV repeatedly shows the buildings fall, and as the families weep, WTC betrays how the most carefully researched slice of life-story can still come off as soap opera. The real-life McLoughlin and Jimeno deserve better than that.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Bangkok Schlock: Nicolas Cage kills time in Thailand

Back in 1999, the Pang Brothers directed the original Bangkok Dangerous in Bangkok after pitching New York Gritty, Chicago Windswept, Hong Kong Crowded, and New Orleans Stormy to various Hollywood studio executives who proved to be less than impressed. I guess Nicolas Cage, flush from the success of the National Treasure films, liked their work, so now Lions Gate has dumped the movie into the smelly armpit release date of post-Labor Day weekend.

IMDB reports that Oxide Pang started off as a colorist, which makes sense since he saturates much of Bangkok in dark blue and green with filters. The film begins much like the noir classic Blast of Silence (1961), with a hit man Joe (Cage) in Prague brooding in voiceover over his solitary professional existence. When he’s not running up to windows to shoot at people, he sits sadly in restaurants, and he lives by four rules which go something like this:

1) Don’t ask questions.

2) There’s no such thing as right or wrong.

3) Don’t trust people.

4) Know when to get out. Erase every trace.

Naturally, Joe breaks every one of them. I generally like hit man films since there’s a kind of perverse logic in cheering on someone who surgically does what he can to control population growth. Like bank robbers, hit men have simple missions in life that leave them admirably stream-lined in their goals. In Bangkok Dangerous, however, Cage makes for a singularly dour killer, and his current dyed black hair is cut just long enough to emphasize his male-pattern hair loss. I imagine Cage means to look cool, but he comes off as mostly depressed, jaded, and morose. His former soulfulness in films like Moonstruck and Leaving Las Vegas has congealed into a glum middle-age. Once he strikes up a relationship with a charming innocent-eyed deaf and dumb Thai pharmacist Fon (Charlie Yeung), Joe does smile once or twice. He also befriends an unlikely young hustler (Shahkrit Yamnarm) that he initially means to dispose of. Then, unaccountably, he decides to teach the hustler to be a hit man too because, as he comically says in voiceover, “When I looked in his eyes, I saw myself.” Thereafter, the film includes some training session montages in which Joe and his disciple shoot at melons to give the younger audience a sense of empowerment.

After that, I might have nodded off, but I believe there’s a shoot-out in a dark bottle factory, a botched JFK-esque assassination attempt of a politician waving in a convertible in a parade, and a boat chase scene reminiscent of a Roger Moore’s Bangkok escape in The Man with the Golden Gun—all action clichés filmed in ABC movie of the week style with cuts to Thai girls gogo-ing in a crowded disco to keep things lively.

As the Pang brothers strive in vain to emulate Coen brothers noir, Cage seems willing to endure any indignity just to have a starring role in a nation-wide release. He may think he’s maintaining his bad-ass recalcitrance, but instead he comes off as a midlife crisis staring out woodenly on cinema screens. Call it Bangkok Catatonic.

Back when Nicolas Cage was arguably slightly cooler: Ghost Rider (2007)

I originally called this review "Blazing Biker Chic."

I can see why Nicolas Cage would want to star in Ghost Rider. After leading in such drippy, earnest films such as Weatherman and World Trade Center, Nicolas was in bad need of a new attitude and hair-do, and Ghost Ride” supplies both. There’s not much of a story to speak of, the villains are wafer-thin and instantly forgettable, and all of the comic book claptrap about selling one’s soul to the devil just sounds silly, but director Mark Steven Johnson understands the film’s essential appeal. It really doesn’t matter if all of the metaphysics of the devil’s bounty hunter makes sense. What matters are the radical chopper, the western theme duds, and that flaming skull.

As Dr. K. explained to me, Ghost Rider began in the 1970s when a Marvel comic strip artist came up with several designs for his editor. Should the bounty hunter have a head that emits sparks, flaming red hair, a Nazi helmet? Perhaps influenced by the Grateful Dead or a bad acid trip, he came up with a flaming skull, and the editor liked it. The film begins with Johnny Blaze, a young stunt motorcyclist in Texas seeking to cure his father from dying from lung cancer, so he sells his soul to Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda, perhaps feeling nostalgia for his biker act way back when in Easy Rider). It takes Mephistopheles a while to collect on the guy’s debt so that Nicholas Cage can take over the role as a whimsical variation on Evil Knievel. Looking a bit like Elvis with a helmet, Johnny likes to motorcycle jump over insanely large spaces packed with semis or helicopters. Johnny tends to zone out while flying, brooding over his bum deal with the devil. In his eccentric way, he tries to figure out a way out of his supernatural obligations by reading old religious books when he’s not listening to Carpenters’ music or eating jelly beans.

Fortunately, the busty Eva Mendes appears as ace television reporter Roxanne Simpson, one of Johnny’s old flames that he had to abandon because of his contractual obligation to the devil. They arrange a date, but with diabolical timing Mephistophiles forces Johnny to metamorphose into his flaming skeleton and biker black leather duds so that he can chase around an escaped demon Blackheart (Wes Bentley) and his three sidekicks who borrow elements from water, earth, and air. Glowering with goth eye-liner, Blackheart likes to go around killing people by turning them black and gruesome with his fingers, so Ghost Rider hops on his magic chopper and breaks speeding laws when he’s not riding up the side of buildings and corralling helicopters with his gigantic chain. Why he metamorphoses does not matter nearly as much the fun of his evening switchover (like Dracula). Cage grimaces and acts tortured as his skull suddenly appears behind his face in a way reminiscent of the famous werewolf change scene in American Werewolf in London.

The rest of the film is complete balderdash, but with fun action scenes. Sam Elliot makes an occasional appearance as a graveyard caretaker who explains to Johnny his metaphysical obligations, and Roxanne tries to understand just as Kirsten Dunst helps Tobey Maguire in Spiderman 2. Towards the end, the film stumbles across a basic difficulty—how do you get a flaming skull to act? Regardless, the Ghost Rider just keeps grinning and riding along, the definitive Hell’s Angel, leaving a flaming trail wherever he goes.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Notable film links: September 5, 2008

--In Coleman's Corner in Cinema, Alexander Coleman writes impressive reviews of classic films such as Out of the Past (1947).

--For The Dancing Image, Movieman0283 discusses how Hollywood satirized itself in The Bad and the Beautiful.

--In Screen Savour, T. S. explores the "on-screen chemistry" of Cary Grant and and Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938). I look forward to his month-long focus on Hitchcock coming up in October.

In MovieZeal, Anil Usumezbas traces the entire history of noir all the way back to Renaissance painting techniques in "Rain, Guns & Cigarettes--Noir's Past and Present."

--FF Film in Focus has an informative series concerning influential film bloggers called "Behind the Blog," which features the Cinetrix of Pullquote.

--Writing for The Cooler, Jason Bellamy analyzes the importance of set design and eroticism in Lust: Caution.

--I've been surprised by the lack of comment about Jan Harlan's intriguing documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, now available on DVD. In The Documentary Site, Heather McIntosh notes how the film explores how, as Jack Nicholson puts it, Kubrick is "still the man. And, I still feel that underrates him."

--For those of us who genuflect before their Pauline Kael shrine every day, Tom Sutpen of Illusion Travels by Streetcar has found a recording of Kael giving a rousing 54 minute talk in 1968 at UC Berkeley just after she was hired to The New Yorker.